Who Owns the Rights?

vintage letters typo vintage typewriter
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com

Once you find a story you’d like to make into a film or series, you’ll need to secure the “rights” and/or “underlying rights” by optioning it.

An “option” is a contractual agreement made between a producer and a writer or third party, which includes payment to hold the ownership and rights to a screenplay. In some cases, that payment can be quite minimal. A “dollar option” is fairly common if the material is not in demand. However, option prices can reach 10% of the overall purchase price and may also include specified or negotiated fees for extensions if and when the option expires. It is analogous to putting earnest money down on a house you’d like to buy. You’re keeping other buyers at bay in order to determine if the house is sound and the bank will finance it.

Movie ideas can come from anywhere – a screenplay, an existing book, a short story, a song or even an article. So how do you go about locking down that amazing idea? Here are the ten steps you need to follow.

  • Step 1 – Make sure the story actually interests you. Are you the right person to bring this story to the screen?

It’s a bad idea to chase a trend or make a project just because you think it would be lucrative. Does it match a genre you know backwards and forwards? Is it something you like enough to potentially spend three years of your life on? Does it have a great part for an actor you have access to? Are you so familiar with the material that you can list every single movie or series that is similar to this project?

  • Step 2 – Determine the “End Use” of this material. Do you see this story as a feature, a short, a web series, a play?

Know the pipeline through which you will deliver the story before you try to secure the rights. This helps you determine if that market is the correct one for the story and how you will shape the story for that market. I can’t tell you how many students have come to me with a “perfect idea for Hallmark” that is absolutely unsuitable for that particular market. Ask yourself, “What is my business objective and who is my intended audience?

  • Step 3 – Find out who owns the rights?

Have you done your research?

Are the rights held by a publishing company? Does a talent agency represent the rights for a media outlet? (i.e. Anonymous Content represents all New York Times articles)

Reach out to the author’s agent or publisher and talk to someone in “legal” or “rights” about their process for optioning material. Sometimes you can talk to the writer directly, although they will often refer you to their agent. Use LinkedIn, Facebook or Google to find them. For example, the publisher is always listed in the front of the book and the author’s agent is often acknowledged in the foreword or introduction, in which case you can save yourself the time of going through the publisher and contact the agent directly.

Is the material in the “public domain”? More often than not, books published before 1923 are in the public domain and therefore require no option. This is a very general rule, however, so always confirm it.

Do you need to obtain “life rights” in addition to the “rights”? Life rights are not covered by copyright law, so buying the rights may not be sufficient.

  • Step 5 – Are there other ways to tell this story without optioning this material? Are there other sources for the story?

Do you need to option this work? Is the title popular enough to warrant optioning it, or can the facts be found in the public record? Is the “proof of concept” this material offers great enough to justify the expense?

  • Step 6 – Think through the best and worst case scenario. If you can obtain the rights, are you prepared to move on a production swiftly.

Options are for a limited time. Do you have a screenwriter lined up? Do you have financing in place? What is the budget? How have you determined the budget?

  • Step 7- Decide how much money you can comfortably commit to an option. How much can you afford?

Don’t get emotional. I once paid three times what I needed to because another producer swooped in with a better offer. It very quickly became apparent that the second producer was a flake, but I had made the offer to the screenwriter and it was too late to renegotiate.

  • Step 8 – Make an initial verbal offer.

Will you use an agent? A lawyer? Or do you make the offer yourself?

  • Step 9 – Make the formal written offer.

The agent will probably ask you to make a detailed, written offer. How long do you want to option the project? How much option money will you offer? What are the terms if the deal comes to fruition? (i.e. payment as a percentage of insured budget et al)

  • Step 10 – Have the money ready. Am I financially in a position to execute the deal quickly if I do secure an option? Make sure you can swiftly write that option check.


Rights – the legal ability to exploit an existing property

Option – contractual agreement made between a producer and writer or third party, which includes payment to hold ownership and rights to a screenplay.

Underlying Rights – the additional rights needed to secure a property. For instance, you might option a biography about Madonna, but you would also need to option Madonna’s life rights to proceed with a project.

Life Rights or Life Story Rights – rights obtained from a living person to tell their life story.

Public Domain – the state of being unrestricted and available to the public as a whole, and therefore not subject to copyright. Usually anything written before 1928 (this changes every year).

*Works are in the “public domain” if they are not covered by intellectual property rights, such as a copyright, or if the intellectual property rights to the works have expired

Articles to read

Books to Read

“Clearance & Copyright: Everything You Need to Know for Film and Television” by Michael C. Donaldson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s